Stravinsky's Rite and More 4 2 and 4

Did you know that in May 1913, even before Diaghilev's ballet of Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring caused fist-fights among Parisian concertgoers, Stravinsky and Debussy together played the newly printed four-hand reduction of the score? You can feel a hefty helping of the excitement created by the crashing keyboards of two geniuses in the percussive thrill that Marc-André Hamelin and Leif Ove Andsnes bring to the score on this new Hyperion recording of Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring, Concerto for Two Pianos, and three other short works for two piano and four hands.

I've always stayed away from two piano recordings of the score to the ballet The Rite of Spring, aka Le Sacre du Printemps, because I thought, after hearing some rousing performances of the orchestral score, that the piano reduction would be a let-down. Thus have I ignored earlier two-piano recordings by Argerich/Barenboim, Gavrilov/Ashkenazy, Bavouzet/Guy, and many others. But hearing it for the first time in 24/192 FLAC format has opened mind and ears to how satisfying this music can be in the hands of two superb pianists.

What you will especially enjoy is the newfound clarity brought to lines and notes by the two instruments. The percussive interplay in this most savage of works is startling, the violence palpable, and the raw energy penetrating. Lesser artists might sound crass as they pound away, but Hamelin and Andsnes know how to create cascades of triple forte tidal waves without ever reducing music to brittle clatter. Simply because the natives are far more frantic than restless, and a young maiden is sacrificed in the rite to end all rites, does not mean that musicality must suffer as well.

Twenty-one years after Stravinsky began to compose Rite, at a time when he was frequently on the road performing concerts, he wrote his Concerto for Two Pianos with him and his pianist son, Soulima, in mind. While the work begins with music that harks back to the violence of Rite, the influence of Beethoven becomes increasingly apparent. You'll even hear some determinedly secular playfulness and scampering in the third movement before the final, increasingly complex and animated prelude and fugue.

It was Soulima who created the two-piano arrangement of Stravinsky's short, unmistakably Spanish-tinged Madrid (1917/1928). It's extremely colorful, echt Stravinsky (if we can use a German word to describe Spanish-style music by a Russian pianist).

Tango (1940) and Circus Polka (194121942), both arranged by Stravinsky's friend Victor Babin (of the Babin/Vronsky piano duo), are about as popular as Stravinsky gets. Circus Polka, in fact, was commissioned by Ringling Brothers for a shot piece that George Balanchine choreographed for the elephants of the three-rings-no-more Barnum and Bailey Circus in grand ole New York City. According to one critic, the elephants refused to play sucker born every minute. Instead, allegedly disturbed by Stravinsky's uneven barrings in which extended rhythms cross bar lines in disregard of formal order, they expressed their preference for bars of a different sort by threatening to stampede. Happily, in Babin's two-piano arrangement, the piece lasts less than four-minutes, which gives you just enough time to realize how close to jocular Stravinsky could come when there was money to be made and the elephants were far away.

I'd never want to be without some of the great orchestral recordings of The Rite of Spring, especially those recorded without compression and available on either vinyl or as hi-rez downloads. But for an alternative that will really get your blood flowing, and will also bring you closer to Stravinsky's revolutionary rhythms, give this a listen.

The sound, captured last April in Berlin’s Teldex Studios, is extremely clear, with pianos expertly laid out one next to the other so that the music-making coheres rather than congeals. There’s just enough reverb to give you a sense of the size of the large space, which is almost exactly the same size and shape as Abbey Road's Studio 1, and big enough to accommodate an 80-person orchestra. Stravinsky’s music requires no less.

dalethorn's picture

Given that Stravinsky died in 1971, there must be a few people still around who knew him fairly well. I'd like to read a few articles about him by any of those persons, focusing on their impressions of him as a musician-composer.

Jason Victor Serinus's picture

putting "My friend Stravinsky" in Google for starters?

MTT knew him, and frequently tells stories about him.


dougotte's picture

Thanks for letting us know about another interesting recording, Jason. I think Le Sacre is better suited for orchestra, but I have enjoyed listening to these versions, as well as the other pieces.

I downloaded from Hyperion, and also bought a sale item - songs by Chabrier. Although it's only in CD quality, the music and performances are charming, as we expect for Chabrier.